A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part Two, The Values that Won the War

If one American division could beat one German division, I thought then, a hundred American divisions could beat a hundred German divisions. Only the time was already past when Germany had a hundred divisions to spare from the Russian front, plus God knows how many more to fight the British, plus garrison troops for all the occupied countries. I knew deep down inside me after that that the road back to Paris was clear. (308)


In The Road Back to Paris, A.J. Liebling is interested in the values that won the Second World War (or in 1944 made victory inevitable). His approach to the war was patriotic but not irrationally so. If he could not resist pro-American statements that come off as rather shallow, such as his claim that American soldiers would do well in the war because of how competitive Americans were on the basketball court, he was in the main an internationalist and much of his war journalism is trying to get at the underlying solidarity of working people that won the war. Nowhere is this made clear more than in the central events of the book, Liebling’s trek back to the United States on a Norwegian cargo freighter in the winter of 1941. It is placed centrally in the book. It is also a central in the sense that when he set out America was not in the war, but when he returned to New York it was. Finally, it is thematically central. Through the sailors on the freighter we learn about the values of the working people who won the war.

I opened this post with the final passage in the book, which rightfully reduced war to a number games. Earlier in the text, while following the Americans in North Africa, Liebling pointed out that Washington wanted a 100% mechanized war. The result of a bureaucratic conflict, run by technocrats applying cost-benefit models. Of course, this is part of the ideology that won the war, a rather inhuman technocratic logic. But I do not think that was all that was at work nor would it have been enough. More impressive is the massive international democratic solidarity, rather striking in a world that was becoming progressively less free during the first half of the century. The first half of the book spent time describing the rising tide of fascism in France and such sentiments were even positioned in in the army (and we know similar movements were power in the United States during the Great Depression).

The Chapter “Westbound Tanker” is a window into this solidarity and a discussion on bravery during a war run by actuaries. While the 1%–2% loss rate on trans-Atlantic freighter voyages was something Liebling himself could brush off, only making one voyage. For the sailors who were committed to the service in the merchant marine during the war, this was an oppressive fact of life, without dramatically affecting their performance. A similar experience was shared by bomber crews that strangely listened to melancholy music before missions. In addition to the risk, they faced rapid changes in destination and a general uncertainty about the future. The war was out of their hands; the same was true for the soldiers.

When you are in a convoy it is sometimes impossible to remember whether a thing happened yesterday or the day before yesterday or the day before that. You watch the other ships and you read whatever there is to read and you play jokes on the ship’s cat. (195)

If  Liebling’s reportage is to be believed, the time was also spent getting to know each other. Liebling reveals the histories and stories of many of these common, unheroic (in the classical sense) sailors. Christmas dinner became a time for sharing experiences, stories, songs, and drink. Mostly Norwegian (the ship was ordered to Allied ports when the Germans invaded Norway) but had crew members from other allied nations. Ideologically they were diverse as well, with some communists on board, but these were not barriers to the crews solidarity, which was quite strong and reinforced as often as possible with drink and merriment and trying to catch a glimpse of “bathing girls” while cruising past Miami Beach. What is coming through to me, more than anything else, is just how much the war was fought by a motley crew.

Liebling’s arrival in North Africa (with gout as a symbol of his relative privilege) leads to some interesting observations. One is that a fascist apologist ruling clique in North African towns (Oran in Algeria is highlighted) being put into a revolutionary situation by the mere presence of this motley crew. Before 1939, this town was a center of radical leftist politics and the fall of France made it possible for the bosses to solidify their rule. In a model copies again and again, capital found undemocratic systems—especially fascism—quite useful in entrenching their power. A result of their triumph, Allied sympathies were high in the town among these suppressed leftists. Of course this situation seemed to exist across North Africa and led to the creation of the seemingly impressive “Corps France d’Afrique.” “Jews, Moslems, foreigners held in concentration camps, former soldiers of the Foreign Legion, and anybody not formally enrolled with a regular class of the Army Reserve could volunteer in a new catch-all organization . . . which was promised immediate service in the front lines.” (231) I wonder if this was modelled off the International Brigades in Spain. The fact that we may have here a model for a broad anti-fascist movement involving such a diverse group in the Muslim world makes it worthy of future study.

French troops in Oran

French troops in Oran

There is no reason to think that the grassroots organization, solidarity, and resistance that struck Leibling as so power worked to be an effective counter to the growing bureaucratic nature of the war. The fact that actuarial tables at insurance companies had to be reformulated when the war broke out should be morally troubling, but it is likely just a sign of the times. Insurance companies knew how likely it was a sailor would due on a voyage, just as commanders new how likely it was soldiers would return from a particular mission. War had become a number games. (As Ambrose Bierce taught readers decades earlier war become a numbers game in the nineteenth century.) These are competing sides of the allied war efforts and even if the number games won the war, it is the diversity and solidarity that allowed many on the Allied side to begin to imagine a very different world.


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